Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity, pt. 5: The Parable of the Sower

By December 10, 2016

To me, the strongest connection between Jesus’s secret teaching and Plato’s is the parable of the sower. Those who argued for Jesus having a secret teaching saw his parables as proof: said Origen, “Jesus explained all things to His own disciples privately; and for this reason the writers of the Gospels have concealed the clear exposition of the parables, because the things signified by them were beyond the power of the nature of words to express.”[1]  The parable of the sower is the clearest evidence that Jesus had different teachings for the masses and for his closest followers: exoteric (inside the walls) v. esoteric (outside the walls).

The parable of the sower has very striking similarities to passages from Plato’s Phaedrus and Theages.  In the Phaedrus, in the same passages that Socrates says that writing is problematic and higher truths need to be taught orally, he compares teaching to a farmer planting seeds: “Now what about the man who knows what is just, noble, and good? Shall we say that he is less sensible with his seeds than the farmer is with his?…  The dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge…. Such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human can be” (276b-277a).

Then Socrates explains that you need to be careful how to speak to people: “You must determine which kind of speech is appropriate to each kind of soul, prepare and arrange your speech accordingly, and offer a complex and elaborate speech to a complex soul and a simple speech to a simple one” (277c).

Just like the parable of the sower, Socrates uses the metaphor of planting seeds and distinguishes between different kinds of speech for different audiences.

In the Theages, Socrates talks about the role his daemon (or genius/guardian spirit) plays in his teaching.

I’ve told you all these things because this spiritual thing [the genius] has absolute power in my dealings with those who associate with me. On the one hand, it opposes many, and it’s impossible for them to be helped by associating with me, so I can’t associate with them. On the other hand, it does not prevent my associating with many others, but it is of no help to them. Those whose association with me the power of the spiritual assists, however—these are the ones you’ve noticed, for they make rapid progress, some are helped in a secure and permanent way, whereas many make wonderful progress as long as they’re with me, but when they go away from me they’re again no different from anyone else (129e-130a).[2]

Andre Dacier, whose French translation of Plato was translated into English in 1701 (the first of Plato’s dialogues in English) argued for a connection to the parable of the sower (and even used the phrase “and takes deep root” for the third type of student).[3]  Such seems like a legitimate argument since just like the parable of the sower there are four different types of responses: those who get nothing (like the fowls eating the seed), those who do hear the word but get little benefit (like the stony ground), those who make permanent progress (like the good ground), and those who lose their progress when they go away from Socrates (like the weeds).

Why make such an allusion?  I’ll hypothesize about that more in later posts, but at the very least it seems to be an endorsement for Plato’s concept of not writing down the highest truths and for only teaching those truths orally. It also suggests that the secret teaching had something to do with Plato.

[1] Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 14.12.

[2] Many don’t consider the Theages to be written by Plato, but it was considered legitimate in antiquity. I’ll talk more about the possible relation between Plato’s spurious treatises and his unwritten doctrine in later posts.

[3] Andre Dacier, The Works of Plato Abridg’d, 2 vols. (London: A. Bell, 1701), 1:267.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I’d add that an other very Mormon way to read this is the idea that the texts don’t have meaning unless you have the spirit. A kind of Mormon appropriation of Socrates daemon that some like. I think the place of daemon is far more complex, but again that’s me being philosophical again.

    While I’m dubious about this apologetic use of Plato (see for instance Nibley in many of the chapters in The Ancient State) it’s interesting reading this in light of post-structural critiques of Plato and ontotheology. The idea is the traditional one in philosophy that speech is privileged over writing. You see this even in the early structuralists like Saussure but the origin is really this idea of writing being parasitic on speech. Post-structuralists like Derrida invert this for pretty good reasons. After all sounds are just as much signs (with the same element of the arbitrary) as are glyphs. Those of us who favor general semiotics over linguistics think there’s nothing but signs.

    I think even people who look askance at postmodernism can agree up to this point. Where I think Derrida is more controversial is his focus on the ‘other’ to the text. There are different ways to read him there. One (the more popular) is the atheistic & nihilistic way where all we have are texts. I think the more accurate is in a quasi-religious sense where what’s external to the text is reality itself. Thus the daemon of Socrates becomes the ‘out there’ which is why Derrida talks of things that can’t be deconstructed like Justice.

    Of course Nibley takes this not in a quasi-religious sense but an explicitly religious sense which is how I think you’re taking the secret tradition. I’d just suggest than an other way to take the secret doctrine from a philosophical perspective is just reality.

    Comment by Clark — December 16, 2016 @ 11:24 am

  2. Yeah, I think this is making more than just a philosophical claim about speech: Plato explicitly says that the wise man will not write down his most important teachings. And the parable of the sower seems to be alluding to the passages in Plato where he says that.

    And you’re right about this being an attempt at a kind of Plato apologetic. It’s largely based on the fact that my research suggests that Joseph Smith viewed Plato in a very positive (though autodidactic) light (no I’m not kidding) and am trying to make sense of that.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 16, 2016 @ 12:22 pm

  3. Yeah, I understand that. I just was more getting at the common idea that meaning is so tied to the spirit interpreting with you. But that notion works just as well with written text as with spoken. The traditional Mormon view of the privilege of spoken text is that when spoken the spirit was with them. i.e. Ether 12:25.

    That verse can be read in many ways, the most straightforward being that the performative aspect of the words is lost when written. But interpreting it in light of the function of the spirit when speaking with the spirit is common.

    But of course the secret teachings of Plato are more than that. (Although again pointing to the very way Plato structures his texts as dialogues I’m not sure we can discount the dialectic aspect as I mentioned earlier) It’s the idea of literal teachings kept secret. And of course as I think you’ve mention a few times that’s hardly original with Plato and goes back to the very way math and philosophy was taught in Egypt. Even much later the idea of technology kept secret for guild use was common. One might note that masonry arguably originally was signs of recognition to allow guild workers to maintain their secrecy about construction and ensure only guild members were allowed to construct the great cathedrals of Europe. That then gets brought into the Specualtive Masonry in Scotland in the late 16th century and eventually gets tied into the our temple rites.

    I am eagerly awaiting your future chapters though – especially in terms of how Joseph read Plato. (Although I suspect the broader Masonic reading of Plato sets the tone)

    Comment by Clark — December 16, 2016 @ 3:33 pm

  4. Plato says that the spoken word can defend itself where as the written cannot, but the bigger issue seems to be that of the listener. Again, “When it has once been written down, every discourse rolls about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not” (Phaedrus 275e). So while the statement from Ether is somewhat related, I think overall, it’s closer to all that passages in the BoM about all the holy things which “cannot be written” and will be revealed when people are ready.

    I’m working on the Plato and JS, but I’d say that how JS read anything, including the Bible, is fertile ground for scholars.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 16, 2016 @ 4:40 pm

  5. I think both senses are common in scripture. There’s the whole “scripture is of no private interpretation” (which is how I take Moroni in Ether 12) and its effects then there’s the common hiding of information in parable or simply not being allowed to reveal things (like the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon).

    Plato’s defense in the Phaedrus is interesting because I think the clear implication is of misinterpretation. That is some things shouldn’t be taught to those not able to understand it. Having read many horrific quasi-mystic interpretations of quantum mechanics I’m sympathetic to the idea of no one claiming they understand it until they can do the math. LOL.

    As I think I mentioned some time ago, there’s a sense of this in how the academy was structured in late antiquity right up through much of the medieval era. Plato was left until last and was more or less equivalent of graduate study. Contrast that to today where Plato is typically read only in ones undergraduate degree and then often only in lower division classes. I don’t know how that intersects with the idea of “secret doctrine” but it does signify how the ancients viewed Plato.

    Comment by Clark — December 16, 2016 @ 7:29 pm

  6. […] parable of the sower sounds like it’s making a similar claim. The key difference between the parable of the sower and the similar passages in the Phaedrus and Thea…is that whereas Socrates would plant seeds in those who came to him to be taught, the sower cast his […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Plato’s Unwritten Doctrine and Christianity 9: Platonism for the Masses? — December 18, 2016 @ 9:50 pm


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